John L. Smith, long the most widely read columnist at the Las Vegas Review-Journal, has resigned over what he termed a “gag order” placed on him by the newspaper’s new owner, the pro-Israel billionaire Sheldon Adelson.
Smith’s resignation on 26 April came in the same week that the think tank Freedom House downgraded Israel’s press freedom ranking because of Adelson’s influence on its media.
Adelson bought the Las Vegas Review-Journal last December for far more than it was valued at, sparking concerns that the move was a “power play” aimed at tightening his influence in Las Vegas, where he owns The Venetian casino resort.
Adelson is a major financier of the US Republican Party, a close ally of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and one of the biggest donors to anti-Palestinian organizations in the United States.
The octogenarian, who once said he wished his young son would grow up to become a sniper in the Israeli army, is currently being sued by Palestinians over his alleged role in financing Israeli settlements and other abuses.
Smith, who worked at the Las Vegas Review-Journal for three decades, told Canadian public broadcaster CBC’s As It Happens program on Monday that when Adelson bought the paper, “it gave a lot of us pause to wonder why even a person of great means would want to spend $140 million to purchase a newspaper that’s worth about half that.”
But the restrictions on journalists did not come the first day.
Shortly after the purchase was announced, Smith even wrote a column stating that “Adelson is precisely the wrong person to own this or any newspaper.”
“His disdain for the working press and its prickly processes is palpable – and easily illustrated by his well-known litigiousness,” the columnist added.
Adelson sued Smith a decade ago and, more recently, sued a Wall Street Journal reporter for calling him “foul-mouthed.”
Smith wrote that Adelson now had a chance to prove the doubters wrong.
But then the crackdown began. Smith told CBC that he received a phone call from an interim editor “who said the new publisher has just had a meeting with him and the first order of business was to instruct John Smith not to write about Sheldon Adelson, not to mention his name, not to mention any business that he’s interested in.”
Smith had been writing hard-hitting columns about the billionaire’s legal woes in an ongoing lawsuit, filed in 2010, involving Steve Jacobs, the former president of the Adelson-controlled Sands China Ltd. casino company.
Jacobs is suing Adelson for wrongful dismissal. Jacobs claims he was fired “for blowing the whistle on improprieties and placing the interests of shareholders above those of Adelson.”
Last year, Adelson took the witness stand for four days of testimony that Smith described in a 12 May 2015 column as a “PR nightmare.”
Smith noted that the “juiciest accusations,” including Adelson’s alleged dealings with organized crime at Sands casinos in the Chinese territory of Macau, had reverberated around the world, even in Israel, “where Adelson publishes the right-wing Israel Hayom newspaper in unyielding support of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.”
Smith highlighted the negative coverage of Adelson’s Macau casino business, including the allegations in Jacobs’ lawsuit of “rampant prostitution, loan sharking, potential money laundering and involvement with Chinese gangs known as ‘triad,’ who allegedly brought in high-stakes gamblers on so-called junkets.”
“No one is soon likely to forget the casino boss playing the tough guy when he said Jacobs went ‘squealing like a pig to the government’ with tales of corporate skullduggery, bribery of public officials and Chinese mob associations,” Smith wrote of Adelson.
Adelson, as Smith also noted, has denied the allegations.
But the stakes could not be higher. If the case goes against Adelson, it could spur US federal probes into his businesses and lead to Nevada stripping him of the casino licenses that made him mega-rich.
Smith, who has a disabled daughter requiring full-time care, said that at first he buckled under the new regime, given the reality of his financial situation.
The last straw, however, came in recent days when he was instructed not to write about another Las Vegas casino mogul, Steve Wynn, who like Adelson had previously unsuccessfully sued the columnist over his writing.
“It was a gag order with your job held over your head,” Smith told CBC of the ban on his writing about Adelson. “I was reminded in a heated meeting of my salary at the paper, of my need for insurance in my life. That was all held over my head right before I handed in my resignation.”
In 2007, Smith had to file for bankruptcy after Adelson spent two years suing him over alleged errors in a book the columnist had authored.
At the time of the lawsuit and bankruptcy, Smith’s young daughter Amelia was suffering from brain cancer.
Thomas Mitchell, then editor of the Las Vegas Review-Journal, said, “I find it disturbing that the third-richest man in America has had attorneys spend years pursuing litigation over a couple of paragraphs he didn’t like in a book published two years ago.”
Smith told CBC that “in the end … we were declared the prevailing party and the case was dismissed with prejudice.”
Last month, Freedom House, a think tank backed by the US government, downgraded Israel’s press from “free” to “partly free,” citing “the growing impact of Israel Hayom, whose owner-subsidized business model endangered the stability of other media outlets, and the unchecked expansion of paid content – some of it government funded – whose nature was not clearly identified to the public.”
In other words, by giving away Israel Hayom, its owner is driving other media out of business.
As Freedom House notes, Israel Hayom “is owned and subsidized” by Adelson “and strongly supports Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.”
Freedom House, it should be noted, did not downgrade Israel because of its systematic abuses against Palestinian journalists.
It does acknowledge, however, that when “deliberate violence against or harassment of journalists” does occur, its “principal targets have traditionally been Arab journalists – both foreign and local, often in and around Jerusalem.”
On World Press Freedom Day this Tuesday, some 20 Palestinian journalists were being held in Israeli prisons.
Palestinian journalists holding a World Press Freedom Day sit-in outside Ofer prison in the occupied West Bank found themselves under assault from Israeli occupation forces who fired tear gas and stun grenades, injuring three.
Though Freedom House ignores such realities, Adelson’s heavy-handed media methods were still enough to earn Israel a downgrade – a blow to its public relations claim to be the region’s “only democracy.”
Now, it seems, the billionaire is playing the same game in the US, with his hometown of Las Vegas as his laboratory.